The making of a UPS driver

When Big Brown found that its twentysomething drivers were flunking out in droves, it had a serious problem on its hands: how to train Generation Y for a hard blue-collar job. The company created a whole new approach - and it doesn't involve videogames.

By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- It's 9:45 A.M., and at 93 degrees and 1,000% humidity, Saddle Brook, N.J., feels more like the Serengeti than suburbia. I'm in a doorless truck, wearing high-waisted shorts, facing a day full of handcarts and heavy boxes. When I arose at 5:45 this morning - an hour I haven't seen the daytime side of since ... ever - the day had something of the adventurous about it. Like more of my Generation Y peers than one might expect, I'd never worn a uniform, or even properly nine-to-fived it for that matter, and here at last was my chance.

UPS would soon fix me, though. At 8:15, after touring the huge open warehouse of concrete and conveyor belts that is UPS's Saddle Brook center, I met Vincent "Vinny" Plateroti, a UPS "driver service provider," or DSP - that's UPS for driver - of 21 years and my escort for the day. At 8:45, we attended the "pre-work communications meeting," or PCM - UPS for morning meeting - which included reports from the previous day and a short but detailed lecture on hydration.

Daniel Gaddy, 24, makes a delivery to Cyndra Mogayzel in Annapolis.
Gaddy in the back of his 'package car'
At the Integrad facility, teaching tools include a UPS 'package car' with see-through sides, sensors to measure the forces on trainees' joints, and videocameras to record their movements as they lift and lower packages.
UPS workers (from left): Seth Gottlieb, Genie Ko, and Marcus Daniels with props for training.

At 9, Plateroti walked me to his "package car" - UPS for truck - and performed his daily "Z-scan," a Z-shaped once-over of the sides and front of the vehicle, culminating in a good kick to each tire and a signed form for the automotive department confirming everything was in order.

At 9:08, he demonstrated "three points of contact" - UPS for stepping off the truck - with a hand holding the handrail, one foot on the package-car step, and one foot on the ground below, to minimize impact on the ankles. (This would come up approximately 256 more times during the course of my weeks with UPS.)

And at 9:10, I got a look at the "delivery information acquisition device," or DIAD - UPS for electronic clipboard - which is GPS-enabled, plans drivers' routes, records all their deliveries, and is said to rival the iPhone in capability. When we pull out of the lot, the huge red numbers on the UPS-branded outdoor digital clock - which, in the UPS dictionary, might be under "idol" - read 9:16.

In the half-hour since then, the real job's begun, and my verve has, to put it nicely, ended. Wide-open doors are not a pleasant, rugged alternative to air-conditioning, and what UPSers call "walking at a brisk pace" to deliver packages would induce wheezing in even the most seasoned city walker. We've only delivered to one location, and already I am sweaty, tired, and wondering how exactly I'm going to make it through a whole day of this torture. And if Plateroti spouts one more abbreviation at me, well, this might just turn into a different sort of ride-along.

For those of you who want to slap me, not to worry, I'm with you. Barely an hour into my job safari and I'm acting like a big spoiled 26-year-old baby.

The old man of the industry

But such is the Gen Y reaction to what one academic described as a "plum blue-collar job." (UPS drivers make an average of $75,000 a year, plus an average of $20,000 in health-care benefits and pension, well above the norm for comparable positions at other freight carriers.) Much derided as a group of upstart technophiles of little work ethic and even less loyalty, Gen Yers aren't exactly a perfect fit for Big Brown. In fact, it's hard to imagine a worse match.

For decades this company, which last year had $47.5 billion in revenue, has relied on "human engineering" - strictly timed routines, rote memorization, even uniform appearance, going so far as to mandate short hair and outlaw beards - to distinguish itself. (And just in case you thought they weren't hip to the times, there's even a policy on piercings and tattoos: one stud in each ear at most for both men and women, and a ban on tattoos visible during deliveries.)

Though UPS (Charts, Fortune 500) has adapted over time, it's that human aspect that has continued to make the business successful. Here, you don't just pick up a package any old way. You take 15.5 seconds to carry out "selection," the prescribed 12-step process that starts with parking the vehicle and ends when you step off the package car, delivery in hand. It's all laid out in UPS's "340 methods" - a detailed manual of rules and routines that, until now, was taught to UPS's legions of driver candidates in two weeks of lectures.

But if there's one group that isn't down to be engineered, it's Generation Y, people who can't even be bothered to use punctuation, let alone memorize anything.

The inevitable discord started to show in 2003, when the oldest Gen Yers were in their mid-20s. UPS senior staffers began to notice a serious decline in some major performance indicators, among them drivers' time to proficiency. Before, trainees had needed an average of 30 days to become proficient drivers; the younger group was taking 90 to 180 days.

Perhaps more disturbing, the number of new drivers quitting the post after 30 to 45 days on the job spiked. That was cause for serious alarm. Gen Yers make up over 60% of the company's part-time loader workforce, from which it draws the majority of new driver hires. And in the next five years, to keep the more than 100,000 driving jobs that currently exist filled, the company will need to train up to 25,000 new drivers.

So did UPS bow to demographic pressure and abandon its 340 methods? It did not. Instead, the company is attempting to change how they're taught, embarking on a management-training project the likes of which few in corporate America - or Generation Y, for that matter - have ever seen.

On Sept. 17, UPS opened its first-ever full-service pilot training center, a $34 million, 11,500-square-foot, movie-set-style facility in Landover, Md., aimed directly at young would-be drivers and known as Integrad. The facility and curriculum have been shaped over three years by more than 170 people, including UPS executives, professors and design students at Virginia Tech, a team at MIT, forecasters at the Institute for the Future, and animators at an Indian company called Brainvisa.

Because Stephen Jones - a former driver who heads training for UPS and is Integrad's project manager - received a $1.8 million grant from the Department of Labor, much of the project data, including the research related to safety and generational differences, will be made public. That information could prove useful across industries - especially for companies that, lacking UPS's almost obsessive penchant for measuring things, may just be starting to see this new generation's impact.

In the course of his "light" eight-hour day with me, Plateroti made 80 stops to deliver 200 packages and picked up 70 more from 20 locations. That's one stop every 4.2 minutes, 100 climbs on and off the package car, 100 walks to and from the buildings, and well over 100 smiling calls of "Hello? UPS!" (which, incidentally, is not just a courtesy; announcing your presence in a firm but cheerful voice inspires some urgency in customers).

That's no small job. And as it's grown - morphing from a straightforward affair of maps and manual labor into a knowledge position, complete with high visibility, advanced technology, and brutal deadlines (the day's first premium packages must be delivered by 10:30 A.M., and if they aren't, the DIAD knows) - drivers have remained at the core of UPS's business. Most senior managers at the company have at one time or another been a UPS driver - including CEO Mike Eskew, who by his own chuckling admission "wasn't very good at it."